ACC Basketball: A New Era & New Powers Arrive

ACC basketball begins in earnest this afternoon, and America’s proudest basketball conference enters a new era with 15 teams, including several imported powers from the old Big East. The league race is shaping up with the usual suspects leading the way, and some serious intrigue as to how many NCAA Tournament bids the league might achieve.

You could make a credible argument for anywhere from 5-10 bids. To set the tone for conference play, here’s a look at what each team has done for the opening month and a half of the season and who they’ve been doing it with.

Syracuse (#5): Jim Boeheim’s team, fresh off a Final Four run last year, is aiming at winning the ACC in their first year in the league. The Orange are undefeated, including wins over Baylor and Villanova, but they don’t look overwhelming. C.J. Fair is an outstanding forward, at 17 points/6 rebounds per game, and fellow forward Jerami Grant isn’t far behind. Trevor Cooney can loosen defenses from long range, and freshman Tyler Ennis runs the show. Syracuse is good, but I’m not yet persuaded they’re a top five team nationally.

Duke (#7): Jabari Parker has been “all that” as the presumed one-and-done player is lighting it up for 21/8, while Rodney Hood knocks down 17 ppg more and is lights-out from behind the arc. Andre Dawkins is another three-point specialist, while Quinn Cook runs the show and Amiles Jeffers hits the boards. Duke, like Syracuse, looks good, but not dominant and for the Blue Devils that bears out in the non-conference showing—they’ve beaten Michigan and UCLA, but fallen to Kansas and Arizona.

North Carolina (#19): The loss of point guard P.J. Hairston to a suspension hurts, but Marcus Paige has stepped up. The 6’1” Paige is leading in scoring, distributing the ball and knocking down the three-ball. The front line is rounding into form, with James Michael McAdoo leading the way, and Brice Johnson, J.P. Tokoto and Kennedy Meeks crashing the boards. Carolina’s been hot-and-cold thus far, losing to Belmont and UAB, but beating Louisville, Michigan State and Kentucky.

The ACC champ almost certainly comes from the above three teams. The following five programs are either receiving votes in the current AP poll, albeit not yet ranked, or at least made the NCAA Tournament in 2013…

Florida State (receiving votes): I’m not sure why the Seminoles are on the national radar. They have decent wins over Virginia Commonwealth and UMass, but losses to Michigan, Florida and Minnesota. There are some decent players in Tallahassee, from Ian Miller in the backcourt to Okaro White at forward, but no one that’s going to transform a game by themselves. Nor is there a three-point shooter.

Pitt (receiving votes): Tough to get a read on the Panthers, with Stanford being their only notable win, and that’s giving the benefit of the doubt. Pitt lost its toughest game to Cincinnati. They do have an excellent player in 6’5” Lamar Patterson, averaging 17 points, dishing 5 assists and a great three-point shooter. Talib Zoma is a good presence inside, but Pitt needs more people to step up in ACC play.

Notre Dame (9-4): It’s been a hard opening to the year for Mike Brey, including losses to Indiana State and North Dakota State. The Irish did knock off Indiana, though that’s of questionable merit this season.  The pieces are there for a competitive year—Jerian Grant is an excellent all-around guard, and Eric Atkins a quality running mate. Pat Connaughton is a swingman who can score, rebound and knock down the three. Garrick Sherman is averaging a 15/8 in the low post. I look for ND to mesh well as the season progresses.

Miami (8-5): Last year’s ACC champ is replacing pretty much everyone on consequence and the results show it. A loss to St. Francis (NY) to start the year sounded the alarm and losses to Central Florida, George Washington and Nebraska followed. The Hurricanes also fell to Virginia Tech in one of the two league games the ACC slides into December. The forward play isn’t bad, with Ron Brown, Garrius Adams and Donovan Kirk but there is no backcourt help, either running the show or hitting the trey.

N.C. State (10-3): T.J. Warren lights it up, with a 24/8 nightly average and the 6’8” sophomore gets a lot of help. Anthony Barber does a nice job running the offense, while Ralston Turner can hit from behind the arc. Jordan Vandenberg and Leonard Freeman are nice rebounders. I’d like to see the 7’1” senior Vandenberg get more than five rebounds a game, but in either case, the Wolfpack should at least play their way onto the national radar again.

The following six teams can aspire to at least stay on the periphery of the NCAA Tournament discussion into February, and when that happens you never know who can catch fire at the right time…

Virginia (9-4): A spotty non-conference performance includes a loss to UW-Green Bay. What Virginia does well is rebound the basketball. Akil Mitchell, the 6’8” senior, is the best at going to the glass, but he’s more a first-among-equals on a team where a lot of players do this well. Joe Harris, the 6’6” senior guard is averaging 11 ppg and needs to step it up offensively to get the Cavs to the next level.

Maryland (9-5): The loss of center Alex Len, who went early into the NBA, has left the Terps as a doughnut team with a hole in the middle. They otherwise have some good talent, with Dez Wells leading the way, and 6’8” forward Evan Smotrycz doing some scoring and rebounding on the front line. Jake Layman is a 6’8” sophomore who can step out and hit a three. In today’s game, the lack of a post player isn’t a killer, especially when you’re just looking to get to a conference’s top six or seven, and I can see Maryland getting these pieces all put together.

Virginia Tech (8-5): This is another team that needs to translate its potential into performance. The Hokies rebound well and the shoot the three-ball well, both on a team-wide basis. They have a clear go-to player in Jarrell Eddie, the 6’7” senior who scores, rebounds and hits nearly half of his shots from behind the arc. The losses to teams like UC-Upstate (in South Carolina) and UNC-Greensboro are not acceptable.

Wake Forest (10-3): Wake’s only losses are to Kansas, Tennessee and Xavier and they have a win over an acceptable USC team. Codi Miller is a 17 ppg scorer, Coron Williams can hit the trey, and Devin Thomas is a really nice forward. The 6’9” sophomore is averaging 12 points/10 rebounds. Collectively, this is a team that does an excellent job going to the glass and I expect them to be relevant in the NCAA Tournament push.

Clemson (9-3): K.J. McDaniels will be an exciting player, as the 6’6” junior averages 17 points/7 rebounds, but that’s not enough by itself to make Clemson competitive in the ACC. There’s precious little support and the Tigers don’t shoot the three-ball well enough to make them a compelling underdog on a game-to-game basis. Last night’s Orange Bowl win will be the highlight of Clemson athletics in this academic year.

Georgia Tech (9-4): There’s good balance in the scoring, and good height on the frontline, with 6’11” senior Daniel Miller 6’8” senior Kammeon Holsey and 6’8” sophomore Robert Carter each good rebounders. The backcourt can provide scoring help with Trae Golden and Marcus Georges-Hunt but none of that help comes in the form of the three-ball. Defenses can clog the lane, and that’s a tough weakness to overcome in today’s game.

And finally we come to the also-ran, the program that’s well under .500 even in non-conference play, so it won’t get any better.

Boston College (4-10): This is disappointing for the Eagles, after breaking in a young backcourt last year of Joe Rahon and Olivier Hanlan, along with junior forward Ryan Anderson. Those three are all still playing pretty well, but there’s no depth and no three-point shooting. And for whatever the merits of their three good players, they aren’t going to remind anyone in Boston of Bird/McHale/Parish or Allen/Pierce/Garnett when it comes to a Big Three.